Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Strong. Female. Character.

A common refrain. Everyone loves to point out a strong female character; especially in modern films.

And, indeed, there are instances of strong, well-developed female characters in modern movies -- but that is not the majority and definitely not the majority in popular films.

So often (with obviously major exceptions), female characters are regulated to three strict boxes: quiet and passive, psychotic crazy woman, or solitary action heroine.

The quiet and passive character can do nothing on her own and the story's development usually involves her finding someone to help her.

The psychotic crazy woman might be powerful, but she's also psychotic and crazy and scary and terrible.

And then there's the solitary action heroine** -- often pointed to as a strong female character. Yes, she is strong and female. But, she is alone. While the quiet and passive character must have a helper, the solitary action heroine must have NO ONE (unless she learns by the end of the film that she should actually be quiet and passive).

Clearly, these character-types have real life counter-parts. But, not every female fits into one of these boxes.

The problem with these characterizations is that they are over-used and predictable. Yet, they often in appear in modern films; even though modern movie-making is so obviously free from the racism and sexism that plagued earlier eras.

And, I would never stand here and write that sexism and racism were not/have not been overwhelming in all decades of movie-making, but I also think that pre-1970 did have a lot of genuinely well-developed, strong female characters.

And after that lengthy and uncharacteristically serious introduction, that is what I am going to be writing about in this post: my understanding of strong females as shaped by classic film.

When I was Little Millie, I was not allowed to watch many modern movies. My modern choices were limited to G-rated-type movies. And because I hated stupid movies (Gidget Goes Hawaiian is NOT A STUPID MOVIE), my options were really limited to Pixar and Jane Austen and occasional fairy tales.

My modern choices were limited, but my other choices were not. My Mum has a great love for classic film and I was taught it. Instead of classic film being a rare exception, it was the opposite: classic movies were the real movies, and modern movies were the "differents."

Much is made of the depiction of women in popular media (obviously, I just wrote a bit about it) and how it affects society. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with Disney stars or teenage pop singers, but if you want to show a girl positive strong female characters -- show her Barbara Stanwyck. Show her Myrna Loy. Show her Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Sandra Dee, Honor Blackman, Olivia De Havilland, Greer Garson, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Joanne Woodward -- and these are just some.

At the age of eight, my two favorite actresses (and I couldn't possibly have been forced to choose between them) were Barbara Stanwyck and Deanna Durbin. They were my absolute favorite people. I watched everything I could find that included these women. But, along with them, I adored many of the other women listed above. I particularly spent my time watching '30s and '40s films.

Of course there were sexist elements (and obviously there were almost no real depictions of minority women), but the more I think about who I am -- the more I can trace back to these women.

Look at Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941). She plays an independent "career woman." She is responsible for providing for her mother and sisters. She's a writer for a newspaper. She isn't -- however -- cold, crazy, solitary, arrogant, or psychotic. She needs people, like they need her. Falling in love changes her in some ways, but it doesn't change who she is or make her somehow wholly dependent on the whims of Gary Cooper's character.

A fully-rounded, fully-developed, responsible, independent, smart, and loving female character. Check.

Look at Myrna Loy in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947). She plays a judge. She takes care of her teenage sister. She is unmarried, and had no need to be until she meets someone she actually loves and would, perhaps, WANT to be married to. She is intelligent and respected and normal. Her character is not being a "career woman" just until she finds a man -- she's being a judge because she wants to and she's good at it. But, still, when she finds guy she likes (and honestly, it's Cary Grant), she's not averse to being in a relationship: an equal relationship.

A fully-rounded, fully-developed, responsible, independent, smart, and loving female character. Check.

Look at Jean Arthur in basically everything (examples: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; The More the Merrier). Or Irene Dunne (screwball comedy queen). Or Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday). Or Carole Lombard (perfect person in the movies and out). Throughout the '30s and '40s, they portrayed awesome, realistic women.

And then there were women like Olivia De Havilland and Bette Davis who played interesting characters, but did even more fascinating things in real life (standing up against the studio system being among them).

Deanna Durbin was the queen of my heart, and even today her movie roles are fabulous to look at. She started out as a teenager and moved into adult roles and it's interesting to watch the growth.

On a similar track, there's Sandra Dee. Gidget's a stinkin' icon. Although the movie is a bit of a watered-down version of the true person, she still played a 15 year-old girl who did what she wanted to do -- instead of what was the "cool" thing to do (although, obviously, there is nothing cooler than being Gidget).

I think the most interesting thing about all these women is that they all played such varied and diverse characters. They didn't all always play fiercely independent females with brilliant careers, but they did play multifaceted women. What I learned from them (and so many other classic females), is to strive for greater things.

These actresses didn't have to stuff themselves into particular boxes, because they were so different. Ingrid Bergman and Greer Garson could play the same role, but they would play it much differently. Who their characters (and sometimes, they themselves) were as people was always displayed.

I guess what I'm trying to say -- in probably the most confusing way possible -- is that I saw so many different kinds of strong female characters in classic film. Because of this, even when I also saw many belittled and one dimensional female characters, it was ingrained in me that there is a place for so many different kinds of women.

And not to be excessively cheesy/to be excessively cheesy, I learned the importance of being my own person.

So, in defense of classic film, I learned about strong female characters from the oh-so unenlightened older generations of movies.

And I got to experience strong females in real-life through my mum and my sisters. 

I wish all eight year-old girls were shown as positive a depiction of strong females as I had. 


**Honor Blackman is an actual action heroine, but that is another story for another time.


Simoa said...

I am. In love. With. This. Post. Everything you said is so succinct, and the personal elements especially touching. I agree, and think strong female characters are often put in a box. Ie to be one you must be single, independent, Tough™, and a bunch of other things that limit women when we and these characters should be regarded as people & not fit into a box.

Also, yay Pixar.

Millie said...


Thank you so much, my dear! It really means a lot!

Yes, exactly, these opposite ideas where you either have to be completely independent or completely dependent as a woman. Craziness.

Also, I love "Tough™." I think you just described my new wildly successful action figure company. ;-D

Yes, I still go and see every Pixar movie in theatres because those were usually the only movies I saw in theatres!

Merriam said...

Hear, hear!!

Hamlette said...

Yes, yes, and yes. As a kid, my two favorite actresses were Maureen O'Hara and Debbie Reynolds. Maureen is still tops in my book. Her characters were generally feisty and intelligent, but also loving and kind.

I may have to link to this post on my own blog, because it's brilliant.

Sofia said...

Not doubt you were lucky to be introduced to great female characters at an early age, and I completely agree that classic films were capable of having them - the examples you gave show just that.

Sexism may not be as evident today, but it's still hard to find truly great and inspiring (meaning, not fitting in the categories you mentioned) female characters these days, when compared to the male ones.

Millie said...

Merriam: How are you, my dear?

Hamlette: I totally forgot to mention Maureen O'Hara. SHE IS THE GREATEST.

Thank you! :-)

Sofia: Oh, absolutely. I definitely agree. And, although, much of the legally-upheld sexism is gone -- at least in America -- it is still obvious in things like the entertainment industry.


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